Lives of the fellows

Frederick Russell Chisholm

b.1 December 1904 d.2 March 1990
OBE(1945) MB ChB NZ(1929) MRCP(1931) MD Melbourne(1932) FRACP(1939) FRCP(1968)

Russell Chisholm was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, of mixed British stock - English, Irish and Scottish. His father, Frederick Hewlings Chisholm, was a business manager, director and farmer, and his mother Alice Christina Arabella, née Russell, was the daughter of a barrister. The first year of Russell’s secondary schooling was at Auckland Grammar School; then followed four years as a boarder at Waitaki Boys High School.

He had originally intended to study law at university and enter a family law firm but, towards the end of his schooling, he decided that he would prefer medicine. His father agreed to provide the £1000 Russell estimated he would need for expenses during his medical course.

He had a distinguished record at Otago Medical School, Dunedin, in both scholarship and sport. In his final examination he was placed first in a tie with J O Mercer - who subsequently became a prominent pathologist - and gained the obstetrics and gynaecology scholarship which enabled him to study at the Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. He won the New Zealand University’s singles title for tennis during his fifth year, together with the Otago Club championship and later in the year the Southlands singles championship.

His final year of medical training was spent at the Auckland Hospital where he eventually became a resident, and where he worked for the first 15 months after graduation. The hospital was severely understaffed. There were, of course, no registrars so the junior staff was responsible directly to the visiting staff. There was apparently a great spirit of cooperation between the residents as they took time to show each other interesting cases and thereby advance their postgraduate training.

In 1930 he became engaged to Audrey Abbey Jones, his wife to be, and Russell went off to study at the Melbourne Women’s Hospital There he was appointed house surgeon to the professor of obstetrics and, together with five Australian residents, studied for the Melbourne MD. He was the only one of the six residents to pass the examination.

He then went on to London as ship’s doctor on the Largo Bay to study for the membership of the College. He was very fortunate in being able to obtain a position as house physician to Sir Russell Brain, later Lord Brain [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.60], at the Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Maida Vale. In London the change from a five-year to a six-year medical curriculum had produced a shortage of graduates so that work was freely available. He sat the membership examination of the College within about eight weeks of arriving in London and passed it without difficulty despite having no time for tutorials because of his clinical workload. Russell Chisholm was later to recall that, having faced and passed the final viva and given his cheque for £40 to the registrar, he was disconcerted to discover the latter hotly pursuing him down Trafalgar Street waving the cheque which Russell had forgotten to sign.

Chisholm remained in London for one year. The only social life he had time for was tennis, which he played regularly at the Royal Botanical Society. He recalled that it was at times so cold that they had to warm their tennis balls on a brazier at the end of the court. It was typical of him that he took a puckish pleasure in arriving for play ‘chauffer driven in a Daimler bus’ while his partners arrived in their Rolls Royces and Bentleys.

As he himself put it ‘the strong desire to see my fiancée again’, coupled with the development of a chest infection in the cold London winter, stimulated his wish to return home. On return, his first job was casualty officer at Wellington Hospital. After six months he moved to Dunedin as medical tutor; this was a two-year position with responsibility for teaching history-taking and patient examination to medical students. He was also responsible for tutoring MD candidates.

The acquisition of a regular salary (£420 a year) finally enable him to marry in 1933. On conclusion of his period as medical tutor Russell decided to start a private medical practice. In 1934 he and Audrey moved to Palmerston North, renting a house near the centre of the town. He could not afford a car so he had an arrangement with the local taxi company to drive him out on visits. Patients were referred for consultations from a very wide area. He was eventually appointed honorary visiting physician to the Palmerston North Hospital and, in addition, did part-time anaesthetics and obstetrics.

He started a Clinical Society, with regular meetings, and was the instigating mind behind similar clinical societies which were formed at Wanganui and New Plymouth. With the advent of the second world war, the Royal New Zealand Air Force base at Ohakea, approximately midway between Wanganui and Palmerston North, became an important focal point for flight training. Chisholm was appointed part-time medical officer to the Air Force base, and in 1940 was appointed full-time. He was soon to be promoted to the position of assistant director of medical services (Air) in charge of all medical aspects of aviation in New Zealand.

This was the beginning of the New Zealand Air Force Medical Service, although at that time all personnel were seconded from the Army. There was very little knowledge of aviation medicine in New Zealand and Russell Chisholm was sent to Canada and Britain to study the discipline on behalf of the Air Force Medical Service. He sailed from Auckland in the troop ship Aorangi in 1941, visiting training centres in Toronto and Halifax before eventually sailing for Britain from the latter port in a 4000-ton icebreaker. Chisholm had vivid memories of the voyage without an escorting convoy and often recalled the fact that on the next trip the icebreaker was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of all hands.

The chief of the medical section of the Royal Air Force arranged a comprehensive tour of Air Force bases, including Farnborough. Chisholm was able to gain a great deal of new information about aviation medicine and the organization of the medical service. He experienced several large air raids while staying in the RAF Club in Piccadilly, and met Douglas Bader at Tangmere. He was also surprised to discover - after sleeping on the base the first night at Tangmere -that he was the only person there during the night. The station had been bombed extensively and all personnel (except Chisholm) were dispersed at night.

In 1941 he returned to New Zealand, bringing with him several items of equipment. He then started a recruitment drive for young doctors to begin training in the Aviation Medical Training School and soon built up an organization, with a staff of over 70 doctors plus support staff. He was a frequent visitor to the Pacific war zone and visited Guadacanal during the Allies counter-invasion of that island. At the end of the war he obtained his discharge from the Air Force and began practice in Auckland. In January 1946 he was awarded the OBE(Military) for services to the Air Force Medical Service.

His first civilian appointment was to Middlemore Hospital as a senior visiting consultant. There he and his colleague, the late Ross Dreadon [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.140], pioneered early mobilization of patients following myocardial infarction - with great success. In 1952 he was appointed to a senior visiting post at Auckland Hospital. He soon started tutorials for young medical practitioners who were studying for postgraduate exams; they were held in his home at 21 Eastbourne Road, where he would arrange for two or three interesting cases to be brought for demonstrations. Both doctors and patients greatly enjoyed these evenings, which were concluded with supper provided by Audrey.

Chisholm became principal medical officer to the AMP Society and medical consultant to the New Zealand Railways, to the New Zealand Post Office, to Pan American Airways and to Mobil Oil. Much of his work was medico-legal and he found this very interesting. He also served on the Auckland Hospital board for 18 years.

Other appointments were: medical officer to Air New Zealand, cardiologist to the Ministry of Transport, and senior medical consultant to the engineering company constructing the Auckland Harbour bridge. He took a great interest in the bridge construction and frequently went down the caissons to join men in a short dig. On one occasion he noticed some mussels on a rock at the base of a caisson -and told the engineers that he thought they had sited it on a rock pinnacle. This non-medical diagnosis was confirmed the next day when, with continued excavation, the caisson tipped at an alarming angle. During the building of the bridge there were no accidents or sickness during the sinking operations.

Russell Chisholm was a foundation fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and attended the inaugural meeting in Sydney. He and his wife travelled frequently to Australia and Chisholm later became New Zealand vice-president of the College.

In 1960 he attended the BMA Conference in Torquay, with his wife, as a New Zealand delegate - the NZMA had not yet been formed and the professional association in New Zealand was a branch of the BMA. He subsequently became chairman of the Auckland branch of the BMA. In the mid-’60s he joined a government team to advise on the environmental aspects of gas turbine power stations and travelled to Scandinavia, London, New Jersey, New York and Ottawa to gather information. He observed that most of the engineers in these plants were deaf. Chisholm had virtually retired from practice by the age of 70, with the exception of his work testing pilot fitness for Air New Zealand. At the age of 78 he was advised by the government that nobody over the age of 70 was acceptable as a pilot examiner and this effectively put an end to his career in medicine. However, even during his retirement after the age of 78, he maintained a close interest in medicine and was a frequent attender at the weekly medical grand rounds at Auckland Hospital. Although he contributed little to the literature, he contributed a great deal to the formative education of his younger colleagues and for this alone many who knew him were grateful.

Russell Chisholm will be remembered as a man with a tremendous variety of interests, both medical and non-medical. In retirement, he took up wood-turning and fashioned many beautiful pieces of furniture for himself and his family. He had a quick mind and a ready smile; he thoroughly enjoyed his life both while he was active in his career and in retrospect. His clipped, rapid speech bore witness to his immense energy - both mental and physical. Even when partially disabled as a result of a slight stroke, his cheerfulness in adversity was the hallmark of a very brave man.

D E Richmond

(Volume IX, page 82)

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